In a square not far from the church of Santa Maria Novella, at the junction of via del Moro, via delle Belle Donne and via del Trebbio, stands the Croce al Trebbio column, one of two columns in the city that commemorate the triumphs of a Dominican friar, Peter of Verona. This monument marks the place where the Catholics won a bloody victory over a group considered heretics, and it is just one of several images connected to Peter of Verona—now known as St. Peter Martyr—around Florence.
‘Trebbio’, from the Latin ‘trivium,’ indicates a place where three roads meet, marked by a cross. Supported by a circular stone and inverted capital base, the tall granite column has an elegant Gothic capital, decorated with an eagle, lion, angel and bull, the symbols of the four Evangelists. This is topped by a marble cross of the Pisan school, which features double sculptures of Christ and St. Peter Martyr. Barely visible, an inscription in Latin on a disc just under the cross indicates that the monument was erected in 1338, replacing a cross put there in 1244 in honour of St. Zanobius, the first bishop of Florence, and St. Ambrose, who had consecrated the Basilica of San Lorenzo in 393. Until recently, a medieval wooden roof protected the marble cross, but this inexplicably now seems to have disappeared.
In 1234, Pope Gregory IX appointed Peter of Verona inquisitor for northern Italy. Towards the end of 1244, the pope sent his emissary to Florence to evangelise the city and to eradicate heresy, particularly that of the powerful dualist Catharists (they believed in two Gods: the merciful God of the New Testament, who created the spiritual realm; and the vengeful God of the Old Testament, whom they identified as Satan, creator of the physical world). Peter of Verona soon began preaching to large crowds at Santa Maria Novella, where he established a ‘sacred’ militia whose job it was, literally, to fight heresy.
Trouble began when two well-known Florentine heretics, the Barone brothers and their protector, the podestà of Bergamo, were convicted of heresy. This sparked the so-called Trebbio and Santa Felicità street brawls (the other site commemorated by a column). In 1252, the Catharists took their revenge: they had Peter of Verona assassinated, struck on the head with an axe and then stabbed through the heart, as he walked through a forest on the road from Como to Milan. As he fell to the ground, he is believed to have scrawled the word ‘credo’ [I believe] on the paving stones, in his own blood, as his life ebbed away. He was later sanctified as St. Peter Martyr.
St. Peter Martyr not only has the distinction of being the one historic person in Florence to have two columns dedicated to him, but he is also the subject of other important images around town.
One of these is a painting: St. Peter of Verona Triptych, featuring the Madonna Enthroned with Child with Saints Dominic, John the Baptist, Peter of Verona and Thomas of Aquino at her side, painted by Fra Angelico around 1428/1429, housed in the National Museum of San Marco.
He is also featured in at least three frescoes. Two are on the walls of the Grand Cloister of the Santa Maria Novella: the Battle between the Catholics and the Heretics by Lorenzo Sciorina; and Death of St. Peter Martyr by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Because he founded the charitable Compagnia di Santa Maria del Bigallo (forerunner of today’s Misericordia in Florence), a portrait of St. Peter Martyr is on the façade of the Loggia del Bigallo, facing the Baptistry.
That fresco, executed by Rossello di Jacopo Franchi in about 1445, depicts St. Peter Martyr performing the miracle of the enraged horse. Legend has it that in 1245, while he was preaching to a large crowd about his crusade against the heretics, a raging black horse appeared and hurled itself against the people. The horse was the devil. Fearlessly standing in front of the animal, Peter made the sign of the cross and the horse fled, leaving in its wake a horrible smell of sulphur, and the people were saved.
The most singular portrayal of this miracle, however, can be seen on the corner of via Strozzi and via dei Vecchietti, known as the Canto del Diavolo, where the event is said to have taken place. On the wall of the Palazzo Vecchetti is a copy of a bronze statue of the Diavolino, or Little Devil, by Giambologna. Originally one of a pair that held flagpoles, it looks like a monstrous, ancient satyr. (Some art historians maintain that Giambologna’s patron, Bernardo Vecchietti, commissioned the sculptures when he remodelled his palace in 1578; others believe Giambologna sculpted them as a thank-you gift to his benefactor.) The second satyr was lost when the palace was partially demolished in the period of ‘urban renewal’ while Florence was Italy’s capital (1865–71). The surviving Little Devil, initially exhibited in the Terrace of Saturn in Palazzo Vecchio, can be admired today at the Bardini Museum.